History of Belgian IPA
Brewing in Belgium stretches back some 2000 years, and the first recorded use of hops in brewing comes from Picardy, France in 822 A.D, about 1200 years ago. Picardy, France is less than 125 miles from Belgium, making it possible, even likely, hops were being used in Belgian brewing around this same time period. By the 1300s, hops were being cultivated in some of the Low Countries, including Belgium.
Belgian beer is often typecast as only lightly-hopped and not very bitter. This stereotype is true to some extent. Belgian beers are often light bodied and crisp, so they tend to need less balancing then fuller beers. But the stereotype is only partially accurate.
Some older traditional Belgian beers carried a hoppy bite. As this article (a good one to read if you’re gonna brew anything Belgian) points out, things like brewing specialty beers in the face of the crisp lager craze, the popularity of sodas, and the novelty of exported sweeter Belgian brews at the beginning of the craft beer movement ensured the stereotype.
An example of these hoppier Belgian brews can be found in the form of Brouwerij Van Eecke’s Poperings Hommel ale. This beer is made with four different kinds of hops and was first brewed in 1981, well before the IPA craze had taken hold. Its IBU rating is somewhere between thirty and forty, so not quite within Belgian IPA style guidelines, but some websites have taken to placing it within the style.
There have always been a few hoppier Belgian beers like Poperings Hommel, but a new appreciation and popularity of the hop, largely fueled by America’s craft beer movement, has inspired Belgian brewers’ to embrace their hop-bittered past and build upon it.
Urthel Hop-it was probably the first IPA-inspired hoppy Belgian. It was created after head brewer Hildegard van Ostaden returned from a 2005 trip to the U.S. De Rank XX Bitter and Houblon Chouffe followed in close secession in 2006. On the American end, Stone’s Cali-Belgique seems to be one of the first commercial American examples. It was released in 2008.
Belgian IPA is a fledgling style, much like the rest of the specialty IPA category; and like most of the specialty IPA’s it stands at a crossroads between style lines. Some may ask whether it should even be its own beer style.
Most of the true Belgian IPAs, those made from a Belgian recipe and then “hopped-up,” could easily find a place in other style categories, be it Golden,Tripel, or Saison. On the other hand, American-Belgian IPA’s, those using an American recipe and Belgian yeast, don’t fit under the current American IPA style guidelines. So, is a new category necessary?
New additions to the BJCP style guidelines are mostly based on a beer’s popularity. Before they became popular, all of these beer styles would have fallen under the blanket of “specialty” or “mixed-style” guidelines. Then they become popular. IPA’s are very popular, thus much experimentation took place with hopping other styles, thus we get new hoppier versions of a given style.
They gain some of their own popularity and get put under the IPA umbrella because, well, that’s how the public knows a beer is hoppy. How long the Belgian IPA lasts as its own distinct style will undoubtedly be decided by its own popularity and the continuing status of its mother style.
But, for now we can celebrate the ingenuity and experimentation of the brewers’ art, its popularity, and a reimagining of the hoppier side of Belgian brewing history.